There is a shift happening across the contemporary cultural landscape. From new understandings of human's impact on our planet to greater insights in our biology, our universe, and our collective histories, the inner workings of our life together are being exposed at an unparalleled rate. What follows is an exploration of two cultural phenomena that I believe are examples of this revealing, one defined by the corruption, manipulation and violence that can be shaped by power and greed, and the other an illustration of the complexity and paradox of a common experience of sacredness.
Exploring the Spirit of our Times
written by Jordan Walker
The film Loose Change has been called "the first Internet blockbuster." Produced for $2,000 by a 24 year old from upstate New York, Loose Change was viewed at least 10 million times within the first year of its release in April 2005. The film was my first introduction to what has since come to be called the "9/11 Truth Movement." Made up of innumerable films, organizations and websites, the basic tenants of this movement claim that the US government not only used the September 11th attacks to gain popular support for an aggressive and profitable foreign policy, but also (to varying degrees based on the particular theory or proponent) played a part in the attacks themselves.
As more time has elapsed since the 2001 attacks, the ideas of the 9/11 Truth Movement have grown from a fringe phenomenon to what Time magazine calls a "mainstream political reality." A large, independent poll conducted by Zogby International in 2004 found that 49 percent of New York City residents believed that individuals within the US government "knew in advance that the 911 attacks were planned...and failed to act." Two years later in a nation-wide poll, 53% of Americans believed that there had been at least a partial cover-up by the government about what really took place on Sept. 11th, with 67% saying that there had never been an adequate investigation of the attacks. Whether lying or not, doubt had crept in as to whether those who we normally look to for the facts had failed to bring them to us.
The aptly named film Zeitgeist, released online in June of 2007, shares many elements with Loose Change and it's countless spin-offs. Both films can be easily found with a Google search and feature the minimal, ominous tone and pseudo-journalistic use of information stripped of its original context which has become readily recognized as made-for-the-web production values. In Zeitgeist the skepticism of the 9/11 films finds its way into all the pillars of our society's institutions. The film deconstructs Christianity (Jesus as anthropomorphized astrological data), capitalism (a secret botherhood of bankers pulling the strings), and US foreign policy (as a quest by a select group for world domination). This is not presented as story or fabled warning, but as cited and researched fact. This material can be found (and no doubt, presented more compellingly) elsewhere, but never before to my knowledge has it been tailored for absorption by such a wide audience.
A certain unease begins to creep in as I view these films and follow links with associated websites. The questions go further than whether or not the "facts" being presented might indeed be true, to the motivation of the filmmakers and the raw nerve they touch in those who watch them. Is this just the latest level of sensationalism in pop culture's continual search for new thrills? Are New World Order conspiracy theories a symptom of a society hungry for answers to questions that it doesn't even admit that it has? Whatever the case, The 9/11 Truth Movement seems unaware that much like the evil (whether imagined or real) it purports to be exposing, its version of truth distorts the rest of the picture to fit its chosen narrative.
As the scope of our informational based culture and planetary awareness grows, so to it seems, do the scope of the questions that confront us. As we search for a context large enough to make sense of our rapidly changing world, our emerging questions might transcend the simple answers that our traditional institutions can provide. Leading me to wonder: do our current belief systems need to collapse before new forms will emerge? Or is a new infrastructure being developed right now all around us like a new skin forming beneath the old that is to be shed? While the questions seem too large and my perspective too close to arrive at any definitive answers, I am reassured by signs that others are developing ways of navigating such uncertain waters.
An impulse to transform the passive monologue of traditional media into active dialogue can be seen in The World Cafe (theworldcafe.com), Meetup.com and other social networks seeking to overcome technologies' tendency toward isolation and anonymity through real world connections and gatherings. Many artists and contemporary storytellers are working from a similar impulse when they portray human experiences with the beauty and nuance that inspires us to share our own stories and seek out other's with a renewed interest in the deepest experiences that we all share.
The Nation Public Radio program Speaking of Faith (speakingoffaith.org) is one of these shimmering bright spots of insight in our popular culture. A former journalist, diplomat and graduate of the Yale Divinity School, host Krista Tippet conducts each interview with a balanced grace that delights in life's diversity while never negating the suffering and complexities of the human condition. The show is both keenly intelligent and soaked in an appreciation for mystery. The weekly radio show and podcast features conversations with voices from the world of religion, ethics and ideas, with topics ranging from the biographies of Einstein and Darwin to explorations of faith based diplomacy in the world of politics, and money and moral balance in everyday life.
There is something very intimate and inclusive about the space that the show is able to create. Its tone far transcends what one would expect from a program covering religious issues and arrives at something familiar but all too rarely glimpsed in our mass culture. It is the feeling of a good conversations between people who care deeply for and respect one another. This feeling gives me hope in the ability to arrive at something much larger, but just as close as personal truth. It is the experience of the sacred. Through Speaking of Faith, Tippet models a public theology that doesn't yield firm and unwavering answers but instead offers a new meeting ground to explore the questions.
It seems that it is through conversation and vulnerable interactions that we begin to articulate answers for ourselves. As we commit ourselves with ever increasing self-awareness to an emerging dialogue, we arrive at a more contextual and participatory understanding than any that could ever be given to us by an outside authority. Rather than seeking a fixed truth with which to judge right or wrong, we are increasingly offered a chance to listen and interact with multiple perspectives. I feel in myself and perhaps in society at large, a subtle shift from a desire for voices of fact and solid truths, to dialogues that can sustain uncertainty and offer encouragement in the tough work of living an authentic and meaningful life.